Sister Thea Bowman’s legacy celebrated at East St. Louis’ last parochial school

Youngsters played the violin, they showed their ballroom dancing skills, sang songs and Booker T. Grisby was eager to tell how the city’s last parochial school changed his 14-year-old life.

Booker was getting in trouble at Dunbar Elementary in East St. Louis District 189. He transferred to Sister Thea Bowman Catholic School.

“At Dunbar, I was getting suspended back-to-back. Since I have been here, I am getting a good education and having fun, too. The teachers are very respectful and they help us with everything,” Booker said.

Booker talked about teacher Dan Nickerson as an example.

“I didn’t have a very good bed at first. And, I would come to school sleepy. I told a teacher about it and he helped me get a good bed. Then I wasn’t sleepy anymore,” Booker said. “They really care about us here. I am glad I am a student at Thea Bowman.”

Students, parents and others on Sunday celebrated Sister Thea Bowman’s life and their school through a program they called “Seek Joy.” It highlighted how the arts are used as part of the curriculum, and how every student learns to play the violin.

Parents Andrea and Curtis Bownes stood before the crowd and heaped praise on the staff. Their twins and another son and daughter attend Bowman.

“We remember the first time we saw them playing violins. Amazing. The whole school plays the violin, which is one of the most difficult instruments to play,” said Andrea Bownes.

Curtis Bownes said his children love learning through the arts, which has taught them discipline. And, he said this transcends to the homework. He applauded the teachers for the way they communicate with the parents about their children.

“They want to help us help our children. It’s been a wonderful experience for our family,” he said

Dorothy Clemons’ 9-year-old great-grandson is in the fourth grade at Bowman.

“He’s been attending school here since the second grade. And, oh my goodness, it is aweome. Since Ryan started attending school here, he has blossomed. He’s learned to interact and express himself,” Clemons said.

Velma Cavitt was moved to stand, tap her feet and clap along with the children.

“It is soothing and inspiring. It makes you know how great God is, working through the children. They are like sponges. They are absorbing everything they are being taught. It is good,” Cavitt said.

Bowman has been in East St. Louis for 25 years, since the city’s four remaining parochial schools were merged. It is named for the African-American nun and educator known for spreading her faith and supporting other minority women in religion. She died of cancer in 1990.

Mahogany Bonner, 14, said she likes the school because she gets to express herself through dance and song.

“And, you learn how to think. Our teachers make us think. We think about stuff in life and learn that every action has consequences. We learn to stop and think instead of going forward and doing things without thinking about them,” Mahogany said.

Roberta Trost, advancement director for Thea Bowman said the school has a 100-percent graduation rate.

“Most of our students continue on to Althoff. And 90, 95 percent of the students go on to college,” he said.